Column: Global Ghoul: Flowers of Evil

By Dale Carothers

Oshimi, Shuzo. The Flowers of Evil. Vertical Inc., 2012. USD $10.95. ISBN: 978-1-935654-46-9.

Go out and buy this book. It’s okay. I’ll wait….

Are you back? Good. Now look down at its cover. It’s white and pristine like a cake of the sweetest frosting. And if you cut a slice of that cake, you’ll find a story most alluring and sweet, but dark like chocolate. Within the lacy-moist nooks and crannies sits a spider’s egg. An egg that weathered the heat of the oven and dodged the gnashing of your teeth, only to burst open in your stomach and send tiny spiders creeping along your insides in waves of tickling dread.

The story opens on a classroom full of bored middle school students getting the results of a recent math test. The teacher calls out their names: We’re introduced to the characters and given a glimpse of their personalities. It’s deftly done and far more subtle than the character bios that float near characters’ heads in most manga.

Protagonist Takao Kasuga did horribly on the test, but we know why. He’s got an open book hidden under the edge of his desk – Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil – and he’s too busy reading to care what’s going on around him. Sitting next to Kasuga is fat-faced, nosy Yamada: Kasuga’s best friend. Saeki got the best score (98%) and she stands to humbly receive the teacher’s praise. Nobody is jealous of her. She’s too sweet, too beautiful, and too popular. Saeki and Kasuga’s eyes meet. She smiles, but his face reddens and sweat breaks out along his forehead. This is a defining moment of the story. Kasuga is obsessed with Saeki. It’s an obsession that he doesn’t quite understand. He’s only a middle school boy, and the hormone-driven tremors running through his body are new and exhilarating – and a little terrifying.

At the end of the opening scene, we meet Nakamura. She got a 0% on the test. The teacher announces it in front of the whole class and demands an explanation. Nakamura doesn’t feel shame, only defiance. She calls the teacher a shit-bug and tells him to shut up. He raises his hand to strike her, but she stares him down. Instead, he makes her stay after school. Nakamura is on the cover of the book. The title, ‘The Flowers of Evil</>’, is encapsulated in a word balloon issuing from her mouth. Many of the evil little flowers of this story are plucked from the garden of her psychosis.

Oshimi is a master cartoonist. Every character has a distinct look. He doesn’t need gravity-defying hairstyles and wacky costumes to make it easier for the reader to differentiate between the characters. Much like John Byrne, he can draw a wide range of faces and body types. And, much like Steve Dillon or Katsuhiro Otomo, he’s rather adept with facial expressions. There’s a modicum of cartoonish exaggeration here and there, most of it in Kasuga’s wide, expressive eyes, but it never strained my sense of disbelief. Oshimi’s backgrounds are wonderful, too. From the austere symmetry of the Japanese classroom to the book-strewn confines of Kasuga’s room, Oshimi’s world feels real.

After class lets out, Kasuga and his friends walk along the street and tease each other about girls. During their conversation, Kasuga’s friend says something rude about Saeki and Kasuga defends her, eliciting additional jibes from his friends. And then Kasuga remembers that he forgot his book in the classroom. He rushes back to the classroom and finds his book, but, before he leaves, he notices that Saeki has left her gym clothes behind.

A sheer white t-shirt and a pair of tiny trunks. Not quite pornographic, or even mildly racy, unless you’re a middle school boy like Kasuga. Saeki’s pubescent feminine musk still clings to the clothes, and the smell makes Kasuga blush and shake. He stuffs the clothes under his shirt and runs home, avoiding his mother and rushing up the stairs to his room.

He lays Saeki’s clothes out on his bed and stares at them. There’s a near intimacy to the page, illustrated in three panels. Her clothes upon his sheets, his hand lingering nearby. A close-up of Kasuga’s sweating face. And a darkened panel, leaving us to imagine happens when the lights go out.

The next day at school, Kasuga is convinced that someone will find out what he did when the teacher announces the theft. Saeki feels embarrassed and violated, and Kasuga feels guilty, but not guilty enough to admit his crime. After school, while Kasuga rides his bike to the bookstore, he passes Nakamura on the road. She asks him personal questions and soon demands a ride on his bike. She presses in close, wrapping her hands around his waist, making Kasuga quiver. When Kasuga refuses to give Nakamura a ride, she tells him that she saw him steal Saeki’s gym clothes. Kasuga flees, leaving his bike and Nakamura behind.

What follows are alternating scenes of Kasuga obsessing over Saeki and her gym clothes – he’s kept them hidden in his room and pulls them out when he’s alone to smell them – and scenes of Nakamura blackmailing Kasuga into doing what she wants. Nakamura understands the sexual power she has over Kasuga. She’s forward and she’s forceful – and she’s creepy. She wants to expose the perversions simmering under the surface of her town and her hostility made me wonder if there’s some abuse in her background.

These alternating scenes are perfect in tone, pace and precision. The plot is tight and tense. I felt a rising sense of urgency as Nakamura pushes Kasuga into increasingly strange and scary territory. The final embarrassment that Nakamura forces on Kasuga ends on a cliffhanger and I’m eager to read the next part of the story.

The Flowers of Evil has a 10 out of 10 chance of waking Cthulhu from his eternal slumber.

Buy this book. It’s one of the best comics I’ve read this year and I have a feeling that Nakamura is going to make things worse for Kasuga in Volume II.